And Now, On to Immigration Reform

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Even with everything else on its agenda, the Obama administration has declared itself ready to plunge forward on an issue likely to be as contentious and exhausting to the nation as health care reform, namely a new effort to restructure our immigration laws. Last Friday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano laid the groundwork when she labeled our current immigration system "unacceptable" and said that the Obama administration is committed to reform as a crucial component of the future health of our economy.

Yet much of her speech wasn't about immigration and the economy at all. Much of it was about enforcement, which made the speech by default mostly a speech about illegal immigration. Napolitano talked extensively about the administration's policing efforts because, I assume, she was trying to establish her street cred as a tough-on-wrongdoers sheriff before she introduces the administration's amnesty plan for illegals.

And yet one thing that Napolitano didn't acknowledge in her speech is that our immigration tribulations go far beyond the contentious debate about what to do with illegals. In fact, our legal system is a mess because it grants most visas based on family status and does little to welcome people here with the skills and job qualifications sought by employers. When he was a U.S. Senator, President Obama largely dismissed suggestions that America reform the system by tilting it away from family visas and toward more skills-based immigration. His past pronouncements suggest his administration is likely to leave the current misnamed ‘family unification' system of awarding visas as the cornerstone of our immigration policy and spend virtually all of his political capital on finding ways to negotiate an acceptable compromise about the fate of illegal immigrants. That will be a giant missed opportunity.

Our current immigration regime might best be described as an accidental system. When Congress fashioned it in the mid-1960s, its supporters assured the country that the new legislation, which eliminated strict quotas for immigrants by nation in favor of new, regionwide quotas, wouldn't boost immigration very much. But since the new system gave visa preferences to family members of U.S. citizens and legal residents-including not only spouses and minor children of U.S. residents but also parents, adult children and adult brothers and sisters of those already here-the math was simple. The more people who came and established residence here, the longer the so-called ‘family re-unification' list of visa applicants grew as newcomers placed their own relatives on it. That put pressure on Congress to continually expand the family-visa category until it came to dominate our immigration system. It also sparked more illegal immigration because Congress could never enlarge the number of immigration slots fast enough to reduce wait lists for family members, which meant many people just came without permanent visas to join relatives and then hoped for the best.

Meanwhile, many other developed countries were moving in another direction. Countries like Australia, Ireland and Canada recognized that most immigrants in the modern world hadn't been forcibly separated from their relatives but had migrated by choice, and so a visa policy based on the idea that countries should be allowing families to ‘reunite' was misleading.

Instead, these countries tilted their policies toward focusing on those with skills and talents most likely to succeed in and contribute to a late 20th century developed economy. Some, like Australia, went so far as to create extensive lists of the jobs their economies needed filled and placed a premium on granting visas to people who could do those jobs. Others, like Canada, enacted broader criteria that rewarded visa applicants with points based on their education levels or their ability to speak and read the native language.

In less than 15 years Australia completely flipped the ratio of its immigrant visas: whereas in 1993, 70 percent of those arriving were granted family visas, by 2006, 70 of Australia's immigrants had been admitted based on skills criteria. The newly arriving immigrants performed far better. A 2006 study concluded that the average immigrant to Australia gained income parity with native-born Australians just five years after arriving. By contrast similar studies in the United States suggest that many immigrants today start out far behind average native-born workers in pay and make little progress over their lifetime because they lack the education levels or skills to advance.

Several far-reaching examinations of American policy concluded that we should head in the same direction as other countries. The Jordan Commission, chaired by former Congresswoman Barbara Jordan in the early 1990s, employed some of the country's leading economists to study U.S. immigration and produced a series of striking reports that can still be obtained through the National Academies. The Jordan Commission observed that the family preferences policy had inadvertently tipped much of U.S. immigration toward visas for unskilled migrants and that we should shift to a skills-based system. Politicians in both parties initially accepted the recommendations of the commission, then headed for the hills when a backlash against the report erupted among those who saw it as ‘anti-family."

Only recently a similarly bi-partisan group, the Brookings-Duke Immigration Policy Roundtable, sought a path to compromise on immigration policy by enlisting experts and advocates from across the ideological spectrum. That group, too, concluded the family unification policy should be "narrowed to include the nuclear family" and that more legal visas should move toward "educated workers with the knowledge and skills to innovate."

Our President, however, doesn't seem to believe this. Back in 2007, while he was a new candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, he dismissed efforts by Senators Kennedy and McCain to introduce an immigration bill that shifted away from family preferences, saying that he had problems with any legislation that emphasized job-skills over reunification. Other Democrats attacked the idea of emphasizing skills as violating basic American ‘family values.'

In a perfect world people would be free to move across borders and live where they wanted to; human capital would flow as freely as other sorts of capital. This is far from such a world, however, and there is no industrialized country without some kind of system for legal immigration. Ours happens to put the emphasis in the wrong places, and I haven't heard anything from candidate or President Obama which suggests we're likely to change that.



Steven Malanga is an editor for RealClearMarkets and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute

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